Our House in the 1940 Census

Detailed U.S. Census records from 1940 were released to the public a couple of weeks ago. The data release is not indexed by person name (not yet anyway) but by location; more specifically, by enumeration district, which is how the census divvied up geographic areas.

Raise your hand if you love demography! Two hands up if you love statistics! Hey, I have both my hands in the air! I love the U.S. Census because I find population statistics completely fascinating. Since I love the census, and I love my old house, it was a given that I would snoop around the archives to see who lived here in 1940. The house was built in 1885, and St. Louis’s massive depopulation didn’t start until the 1950s, so there was a good chance that the house was inhabited in 1940.

After spending an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out which enumeration district the house was in, I saw that someone had posted this link to our neighborhood Facebook page. So much faster and easier! A few minutes later, I found my house.

And I have to say, I was surprised by what I found.

A family of four elderly and unmarried siblings lived here together: Walter, Elizabeth, Otto, and Frances Borgstede. They were 71, 77, 75, and 67 years-old, respectively. Walter was listed as the head-of-household, and Frances the one interviewed by the census worker (denoted by the circled X by her name). All four were born in Missouri. The house was estimated to be worth $3,000.

Walter was the only one of the four siblings to work outside of the home. He was a secretary treasurer at a stove foundry. His annual salary was $5,000.

The information about the Borgstedes’ neighbors was also interesting. The neighborhood was full of  middle-class working families: truck drivers and loaders, policy officers, laundry workers, and — unspecified but implied — a lot of housewives.

I couldn’t help but wonder at the elderly Borgstede siblings, living in a house full of stairs and surrounded by young families with children. They were the oldest people listed on this census page. Most of the others were in their 20s and 30s, and 14 of the 39 people on this page were children. Walter Borgstede made more each year than the house was worth, and more than double what his neighbor (a police officer) made each year. Why did they live here? Did they grow up in this house? Did they decide to stay when it became clear that none were going to marry or strike out on their own?

My imagination went wild creating backstories for the Borgstede siblings. Indulge me if you will…Otto and Elizabeth both left school after 8th grade to help out with the family business. The business was successful enough to allow Walter to go to college and get a good job. He repaid their sacrifice by taking care of them in their old age and promising they would never have to work again. Frances had recently returned to St. Louis after four slightly scandalous decades in Europe. The neighborhood kids knew them as the kindly old people who would give out really fancy candy at Halloween. Otto made wooden toys in the basement and would secretly leave them at the bus stop for children to discover. Elizabeth baked cookies during the day and threw elegant cocktail parties at night. When Frances was interviewed by the census worker, she was wearing a purple turban and smoking a cigarette through a 15-inch holder made out of carved ivory.

Okay, okay, back to reality. Have any of you checked out the 1940 census records? I’m curious to hear what others have discovered.

2 thoughts on “Our House in the 1940 Census

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